Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 5, 2013
Chris Smith stood at the foul line and motioned for his buddy — and former West Rowan teammate — K.P. Parks to toss him the basketball.
Smith aimed and shot.
Bam! The ball banged off the backboard.
“Man, you’re terrible,” Parks chided Smith.
You could almost imagine West coach Mike Gurley, who once nicknamed Smith “Hercules” cringing and saying, “Some things never change.”
Gurley would be correct. Some things don’t change, like Smith and Parks being fun-loving kids home from college on a holiday break, hanging out together at the local YMCA.
Which brings up this question:
Why is Chris Smith, the starting defensive end for Arkansas, and K.P. Parks, the leading rusher for Virginia, at the YMCA shooting hoops and not preparing for a bowl game?
When the locals try to make Smith and Parks larger than life, they are humbled.
“I tell people ‘I’m still Chris. I’m still the same Chris that walked the West Rowan halls,’ ” Smith laughed.
“And I’m still the same ol’ K.P.,” Parks chimed in. “I ain’t gonna change.”
In 2011, both former prep All-American football players were very busy over the holidays. No trips home. No time for pickup basketball or hero-worshiping.
Parks was in Atlanta, running around end during the Chick-fil-A Bowl, with ABC’s Brad Nessler yelling his name after a long run.
Smith was with the Razorbacks, playing in the Cotton Bowl.
National exposure. Hero status back home. And nothing but more of the same in 2012.
Or so they thought.
At Arkanas, it was a well-documented plummet from near the top of the preseason polls. Coach Bobby Petrino was caught with his mistress and was fired. Quarterback Tyler Wilson was injured. Nothing seemed to go right and Smith kept a stiff upper lip during a 4-8 season.
“Man, it’s real tough, especially with us having so much success last year,” the 6-2, 258-pound Smith said. “I tell people we hit rock bottom and there’s nowhere to go but up.”
In Charlottesville, everything was looking rosy after Parks and Virginia beat Penn State. But Georgia Tech ripped the Cavs, who never recovered. Like Smith, Parks suffered through a 4-8 season.
Parks is the confident type who thought he’d never know what losing is about. He may be only 5-7, 200, but there were days when he was the best high school running back in America. West football coach Scott Young was smart enough to give him the ball enough for Parks to rack up 10,895 career yards, third all-time in American history.
“It’s tough after coming out of high school where you won a lot of games,” he said. “Losing eight games just doesn’t feel right.”
Parks remembers how much fun the Chick-fil-A Bowl was last year. It didn’t feel good having to watch Clemson go to Atlanta this season.
“Seeing the players get an extra game, all those bowl gifts … it hurts,” he said. “(A bowl) is a cool thing. I feel like we should be playing in one of them. It’s good for (Clemson) but it sucks for us.”
Neither had much time to think about the bowl woes because they were too busy shaking hands and getting pats on the back when they attended the Moir Christmas Classic at Catawba College last week. Like most of the fans, they came to watch two future Division I players committed to N.C. State.
“I heard about the twins, Cody and Caleb Martin of Davie,” Parks said. “Those boys are right.”
“Those two twins put on a show for everybody,” Smith said.
Watching the high schools play in front of 3,000 fans brought back memories.
“Me and K.P. are always talking about the old times,” Smith said. “We miss ’em. I saw (former West teammate) Jon Crucitti (who plays for Army) and I told him, ‘This is more fun than college.’ He said college is more like a business. When you get to the next level, they take the fun from the game. I’m finding that out myself. Instead of playing for fun with no worries, that’s your job.”
With big decisions to make. Smith sent in his NFL evaluation, which tells you where you’ll get drafted. There were rumors he was coming out early. But he confirmed he’s going back to Fayetteville for his senior season.
This year’s Cotton Bowl showcased a freshman named Johnny Manziel. Mention his name and Smith smiles — and grimaces. Johnny Football’s breakout game was in the rain against Arkansas.
“He ran all over the field on us, like it was playground football,” Smith said.
Did Smith wrap his arms around the slippery Heisman Trophy winner?
Smith said Texas A&M was running the read option at the goal line and he knew Manziel would keep it. He was credited with a tackle for loss.
Sheepishly, Smith admits, “He kinda slipped and I jumped on top of him.”
Asked who was going to win the national title Monday night, Smith stayed loyal to his league, the mighty SEC
“I have to put it with Alabama,” he said. “Notre Dame is a great team with a lot of weapons, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be Alabama. They’ll tough it out.”
The two buddies always try to watch each other on TV and make phone calls. Parks laughs about watching Smith against LSU.
“I was dozing off and I hear, ‘Chris Smith with the sack,’ ” Parks said. “I’m jumping up, calling all my boys.”
After disappointing seasons, it’s good they had each other over the holidays. And it was good for them to greet all the well-wishers around Salisbury.
“When I’m home, I see family and all of the people who helped me get where I am,” Smith said. “At the Christmas tournament, little kids and even grown-ups were looking at me like I was a hero. That’s the best thing about it — the love.”
“Exactly,” Parks added. “There’s a lot of good people in Salisbury who are watching us play on TV. It feels good to get that support. We’re from a small community that loves you.”
That’s why it’s nothing to see these two Division I stars clowning around on a YMCA basketball court like anyone else. Being home reminds Parks and Smith that Salisbury is where their best memories will always be.
“We’ll never forget where we came from,” said Parks as he lined up a jumper from 20 feet.
For the record, he swished his.
Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or firstname.lastname@example.org.